On the first day of 2021, President Donald Trump signaled the war to come within the Republican Party.
“I hope to see the great Governor of South Dakota @KristiNoem run against RINO @SenJohnThune in the upcoming 2022 Primary,” he tweeted. “She would do a fantastic job in the U.S. Senate, but if not Kristi, others are already lining up. South Dakota wants strong leadership, NOW!”
What offense had Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, committed? Certainly not breaking with Trump’s agenda over the past four years — as the South Dakota senator voted with the President 93.6% of the time, according to calculations made by 538. (That was the same score as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.)
No, what Thune “did’ to Trump is publicly acknowledge that Joe Biden won the 2020 election. “I understand there are people who feel strongly about the outcome of this election, but in the end, at some point, you have to face the music,” Thune told the New York Times last month.
And, say that the planned congressional challenge to the Electoral College on January 6 would a) not succeed and b) put lots of Republicans in a terrible political position.
“I think the thing they got to remember is, it’s not going anywhere,” Thune told CNN last month. “I mean in the Senate, it would go down like a shot dog. I just don’t think it makes a lot of sense to put everybody through this when you know what the ultimate outcome is going to be.”
For stating these facts, Trump is actively encouraging Noem, the state’s governor and an ardent Trump-er, to take on Thune.
And, make no mistake: This isn’t about ideology — as Trump seems to suggest in his tweet attacking Thune as a “RINO” (Republican in name only). Thune has spent much of the last two decades serving in the House and Senate, and racking up a solidly conservative voting record. His American Conservative Union lifetime score is almost 85. (Fellow South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds has a 75 conservative score.)
Trump’s push for a primary challenge to Thune then is solely about the President believing that the senator is not sufficiently loyal. And “loyalty” is defined as supporting his baseless conspiracy theories about the election and/or attempting to overturn the results by extra-legal means.
Thune is not the first Republican elected official who Trump has threatened over a lack of loyalty.
In the wake of his November defeat in Georgia, Trump has repeatedly pushed Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, a Trump loyalist through and through, to find a way to overturn the results.
When, after several recounts, Kemp said he had no way of changing the outcome, Trump began attacking him — and casting around for a primary challenge in 2022.
“Doug, you want to run for governor in two years?,” Trump asked of GOP Rep. Doug Collins at a rally for Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in advance of their January 5 runoff races.”He’d be a good-looking governor.”
The standard being set here by Trump is clear: If you don’t support his fact-free attempts to overturn the election, he will cast you as not a “real” Republican — and work to find someone more loyal to him to take you on.
Which brings me up to the debate — and vote — coming this week in Congress over objections in regard to the Electoral College registered by Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley as well as a handful of die-hard Trumpers in the House.
That vote will almost certainly be used by Trump as a loyalty litmus test going forward. Either you vote with him (and against, well, you know, a little thing called democracy) or he will find someone to run against you the next time you are up for reelection.
“One of the GOP senators up for re-election in ’22 acknowledged that voting against Trump may spur a primary challenge,” tweeted Punchbowl News’ John Bresnahan on Friday. “‘This is a problem for me,’ said the senator, who asked not to be named.”
Yup! Big time! (Remember, too, that Senate Republicans already have plenty to worry about in 2022; they have to defend — as of today — 21 seats as compared to just 13 for Democrats.)
What Trump’s threats against Thune and Kemp suggest is that the outgoing President is entirely comfortable ripping the Republican Party in two: Those who back him until the bitter end (and beyond) and those who, well, don’t.
Which, if it comes to pass, is an utter disaster for the near-term (and maybe middle and long term ) future of the GOP. A fissure that creates a Trump party and a Republican Party would likely lead to losses up and down the ballot in swing seats and states — as there are simply not enough Republicans in the country to split themselves up and still win.
Smart conservative minds — like Thune and McConnell — understand this math. Trump either doesn’t or doesn’t care. Either way, what he is threatening to do to the Republican Party could leave it badly damaged for years to come.